Timberwolves 97, Kings 89: This Is Basketball—The Gods Will Not Save You (Every Time)
The five-game losing streak is no more. And yes, it was snapped against a team now in sole possession of the worst record in the West and just as prone to meltdowns as the Wolves. But as is often said, you have to win the ones you’re supposed to win, and Minnesota won this game with a combination of activity on offense, Kevin Love getting more integrated into the team, and a healthy dose of the kind of good fortune every team requires. Oh and there was that singularity created by the double foul on DeMarcus Cousins and Love, but more on that later.
Early on, the Wolves struggled with shooting and turnovers, but even so, the offense was moving a lot more as you can see here:
The ball cycles all the way around the court twice, with Luke Ridnour taking the handoff from Love, getting it to an open Malcolm Lee who pushes it into the paint, finds Andrei Kirilenko on the arc, who passes it to Ridnour when Aaron Brooks closes on him, who drops it down to Nikola Pekovic on the block. Yes, it ends with a turnover, but finding Pek with deep post position like that is good work.
Likewise, here you can see the possession that starts the second quarter for the Wolves:
Again, it doesn’t end with points. But that little tornado of activity around the right block where Love and then Pek set screens for Alexey Shved to curl into the paint with Love then flaring out to the three-point line is a great look.
Rick Adelman’s also been saying for a few games now that although they’ve been forced to run more pick-and-roll than he’d like to have to because of the instability of the lineups, he’s been trying to get them to initiate the pick-and-roll out of movement, rather than coming into it out of dribbling into the half court. You can see why that’s more effective right here:
Ridnour drops it off to Shved and then feints towards running through the paint before getting it back on the wing. The screen from Love doesn’t free him so he gets back to Shved and Love goes to set the screen again. Shved gets the switch and drives past Cousins, leaving his feet—of course—to pass it out to Kirilenko, who quickly switches it to Ridnour who pump fakes then steps inside the arc for a long two attempt. Now, a long two like that is not a great look in general, but look at what’s happening in the paint on the miss:
All that movement means that there are three Wolves in the paint ready for the rebound and Love easily gets position and taps it in for two. Running plays effectively like that doesn’t just get you open looks, but also organizes the floor in ways that create an environment for success.
But let’s talk about Kirilenko. Since Love has come back to the lineup there’s been a murmur of concern over how Kirilenko has adjusted to his return and the numbers bear it out. Even though his usage percentage has remained more or less the same (17% w/o Love, 16.8% w/ Love), his numbers have taken a tumble. In the nine games the team played to open the season, Kirilenko shot 60% and 53% from the arc and averaged 14.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 3.1 apg, and 2.2 bpg. Although his assists have bumped to 3.8 per game with Love in the lineup, he’s only averaging 10.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg and 1 bpg, plus, most worryingly, shooting 34% and 11% from distance. His line last night looked much better (14 pts, 6 rebs, 5 assists, 3 blocks) but there were also two plays in particular that showed how potent the link-up between Love, Kirilenko and Pekovic can be.
Here’s the thing that’s counterintuitive about that frontcourt: you’ve got a small forward who’s a creator and not much of a three-point threat, a power forward who’s a great rebounder but also a knockdown three-point shooter, and a center who’s a bruiser on the offensive boards. On first blush, it seems like you might want the ball in the SF’s hands to create for the PF and leave the C to clean up, but twice last night we saw Love initiating the offense with Kirilenko working on the baseline and Pekovic on the weakside and it was a thing of beauty.
Here are the two plays:
In neither case is the play a set play, but more the result of pushing the ball and responding to the double team, respectively. But in each case Love ends up with the ball on the wing. In the first play, Kirilenko cuts along the baseline and draws Pekovic’s man to him before dropping it off for an easy layup. In the second, Kirilenko just drifts out of the paint, catches the ball, steps into the double team and drops it off again for Pek. It’s also worth noting that at the end of each of these plays, both Ridnour and Shved are open at the arc if the kickout had presented itself. When Love fully gets his stroke back (although he had 23 points he only shot 2-8 from the arc) and with Kirilenko working that baseline so well, this is the kind of play we need to see more from them.
Those are the kind of things you can actually plan into a game, but any team also needs a couple breaks to fall their way and the Wolves got two big ones last night. With 4:20 to go in the fourth and Minnesota up 86-82, Ridnour found himself on the right wing with the shot clock winding down. Miss and he would give the ball back to the Kings with a chance for them to make it a one-point possession. So he flung the ball at the rim, hit the front of it, then got the rebound and put it back up and in.
Then, with 42.2 seconds left in the game and up 93-89, the Wolves were hoping to get a basket and put the game out of reach for the Kings. The called pick-and-roll failed to spring Ridnour and Love couldn’t handle his pass into the post cleanly, which meant a swift double team. With the shot clock winding down, Love spun and heaved a desperation shot.
And it went in. Sometimes, you just need the basketball gods to smile on you a little, and that’s what the Wolves got.
Lastly, a word on the double foul call, which SI’s Rob Mahoney has already thoroughly explained here. As he points out, the referees were actually following the letter of the law when they discovered they couldn’t agree on the call. What interests me, though, is not the mechanics of it, the question of whether it was a block or a charge, but how it draws attention to the way there is no immutable truth on the court in many ways. The rules of basketball are not the rules of physics. They are not inviolable constraints but rather mutable interpretations of reality. The game is a human activity, not an elemental one, and so even though it produces results written in the black and white of numbers, it is ever open complicated and contradictory kinds of understanding. Could computers one day measure the angle of the defender’s body, the speed of the offensive player’s movement, the precise position of everyone’s feet and render a scientific judgment about whether this was a charge or a block? Probably. But I’m not sure I’d want it called that way.